One hundred British artists, musicians and writers have thrown their weight behind a campaign to open up more of the English countryside to the public, arguing that the lockdowns of 2020 have demonstrated how vital that access to outdoor space can be.
In a letter sent to prime minister Boris Johnson on Monday, the signees, including musicians Brian Eno and Jarvis Cocker, travel and nature writer Robert Macfarlane, author Ali Smith, and actors Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry, pointed out how restrictive English laws are when it comes to rights of way.
They are calling on the government to revisit the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act that opened up mountains, moors, some down land, heath and coastlines to the public, with a view to granting a greater “right to roam.”
“We have freedom to roam over just 8 per cent of England, and only 3 per cent of rivers in England and Wales are legally accessible to kayakers, paddle-boarders and wild swimmers. But just over the border in Scotland, the law encourages the public to swim, walk, camp, kayak, forage and climb, to connect with nature in a responsible manner that is better both for them and for the environment,” the letter said.
“Why should we, in England, be denied this right?” it asked, echoing a question that has resonated over the course of English history.
The land reform act in Scotland was passed in the first term of its devolved parliament in 2003, granting Scots some of the most generous access rights in Europe over most areas of land and water. But in England, members of the public are trespassing in most places when they stray beyond a 117,000 mile network of public rights of way.
The English “right to roam” campaign, launched this year by the writer and illustrator Nick Hayes, and fellow writer Guy Shrubsole, has collected 130,000 signatures in protest at government plans to criminalise trespassing. That is above the number required to trigger a debate in parliament.
Both authors have published books this year charting in different ways the history of private land ownership, and how it has come to exclude the general population from most of the land.
Their campaign is urging the government to mark the 20th anniversary of the Countryside and Rights of Way act, by extending access to all woodland, rivers and the green belts around urban areas.
Doing so, the letter to Mr Johnson argued, would “give millions more people ready access to nature on their doorsteps,” with knock-on benefits for mental and physical health.
“Undeniably, people have been able to experience the necessity for open space more viscerally than perhaps ever before because our liberty was removed from us,” Mr Hayes said, explaining that he had planned the campaign long before Covid-19, but that the pandemic had given it momentum.
The letter to the prime minister was an opening shot, he added.
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “As we have recognised in our 25-year environment plan, public access is key to connecting people with the environment to improve health and wellbeing.
“As well as existing rights to roam across open access land, the completion of the England coast path would open up some beaches, cliffs and other coastal areas for the first time.”